I read Half Bad by Sally Green in a day. I was off work, it was storming out, and once I started it there was nothing I’d rather be doing. Following the recent trend of trilogies in YA, this it the first of a planned three, and one I’d recommend for the dystopian, action-oriented crowed. You know, the tried and true and what’s-next-for-me fans of Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc. This one, though–this one has witches, and I’m a sucker for witches. Think the dark parts of Harry Potter meet Divergent and you’ll have some idea of what Sally Green has in store for you.
Set in the modern day, the world is populated by witches and fain (non-witches). Not surprisingly, the witches are self-divided into White (“good”) and Black (“bad”) witches, with the white in charge and the black persecuted. The novel opens with Nathan, a 16-year-old witch shackled in a cage, plotting escape from his captor. I won’t tell you how that goes down, but the story soon shifts to recollections of Nathan’s childhood, where we begin learning his history and at least why he might be put in a cage: Nathan has the rare distinction of being half White and half Black. While Nathan has never met his father, simply being related to an infamous Black witch has marked the boy as a potential threat. In a regulatory move, the government issues a resolution that all witches in Britain must be officially coded White, Black, or Fain–half codes like Nathan will only be permitted as such until their 17th birthday, when they must choose an official designation, white or black. Each year, Nathan goes in for an assessment and more resolutions are passed that limit his freedoms as a half code. As government sanctions ostracize him, Nathan also faces bullying at school and by his older sister. Life may be bleak and unfair, but it is not entirely without love. Nathan’s grandmother and brother are his comfort and support, and a girl at school has caught his eye. Still, there comes a point where the only option left to him is escape.
As Nathan navigates a hostile society, he is constantly confronted with questions of identity. Who is he and who were his parents? Which half truly defines him? Green layers complexities into a plot that is taut with suspense and where things are rarely just black and white. Action, intrigue, murder, and betrayal are all set against a ticking clock; any witch who does not participate in the gift-giving ceremony of their 17th birthday will not receive a power, and they will likely suffer a premature death. Nathan’s 17th birthday is fast approaching, making the success of his journey all the more critical. The structure and traditions of witch society are well developed, makings Green’s magical world believable. There are hunters (like aurors in Harry Potter), healers, potion makers, and bureaucrats. There are fears and flaws and an underground network of witches wishing to remain off the grid, as it were. Told through first person narration, we learn about this world as Nathan does and, consequently, feel a great deal of sympathy for this boy who is searching for a place in it. Entertaining, imaginative, and well written, Half Bad was a complete pleasure to read. I hope I don’t have to wait too long for the next one!